Our Brain’s Mad Lib

Ironically, knowing our brains’ tendency to focus on the negative is the key to a happier life.

            He was cute—really cute. A mop of dark hair with the sweetest brown eyes. For weeks, my friend talked about her new coworker, the one who asked if she wanted to meet after work sometime.

            The date was set for a Friday on a Tuesday. From Tuesday on, *Samantha could barely sleep or eat. 

            “I’m so nervous. What do I wear? What if he only meant for us to get together as friends? What do I say? What if he changes his mind and isn’t attracted to me?”

            The day finally arrived. I assumed I wouldn’t hear from Samantha until later that night. But Samantha called me before the sun even set.

            “You okay?”

            “Yeah,” Samantha said. Her voice made me think of tires losing air. “I’m not attracted to him.”

            Say what??

            “He’s not much of a conversationalist. I tried to engage him. He was so boring.”

            “Back it up sister, you thought he was so cute. What happened?”

            “He took off his mask.”

            Well then.

            We may not be in Samantha’s shoes, but we have certainly all experienced what psychologists refer to as negative bias. Our brains receive external information and literally wire the positive and negative input into different hemispheres.

            “Negative emotions generally involve more thinking…information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events—and use stronger words to describe them-than happy ones.” (Stanford Professor, Clifford Nass)

            So, while Samantha was thrilled that the cute guy at her office asked her on a date, her brain was flooded with its Mad Libs’ tendency to fill-in-the-blank what ifs with worst case scenarios. Her brain’s negative bias created a rush of worrisome thoughts that manifested in difficulty sleeping and a loss of appetite.

            I had my own negative bias: when Samantha called me when she was meant to be on the date, my brain did its own Mad Libs negative bias: Did “cute guy” stand her up? Did he do something inappropriate? Is she in danger?

            The idea that Samantha just might have decided to end the date early didn’t occur to my brain. 

            But what about how “really cute” Samantha’s coworker was? There’s negative bias there, too. Afterall, a good portion of her worry stemmed from a fear that “really cute” guy wouldn’t find her attractive. So, her brain took the meager view one third of a man’s face and made him a Greek god, out of her league, aesthetically “above” her. 

            It’s important to realize that it was Samantha’s brain creating the Mad Libs in the genre of a horror movie. It’s also important to remember the brain is an organ—no different than the lungs or kidneys. The brain has specific functions just as our bodies’ other organs, but it need not define us.

            So, knowing our brain is wired toward the mental gymnastics of negative bias, what can we do? The Buddhist monk, Henepola Gunarantana suggests a compassionate reckoning of sorts with yourself:

            “Somewhere in this process [self-analysis], you will come face-to-face with the sudden and shocking realization that you are completely crazy. Your mind is a shrieking gibbering madhouse on wheels, barreling pell-mell down the hill, utterly out of control and hopeless. No problem. You are not crazier than you were yesterday. It has always been this way, and you just never noticed. You are also no crazier than everybody else around you. The real difference is that you have confronted the situation they have not.”

            Becoming mindful, cultivating self-awareness—including our brain’s hardwired tendency to focus on the negative, is actually the key to mental freedom. The challenge isn’t our negative thoughts; the challenge is remembering that we can choose not to believe them; the challenge is remembering we are not our thoughts.

            Source: https://skillpath.com/blog/positive-fight-natural-tendency-focus-negative

A Different Type of Mirror

Consider the idea that our world is reflecting back to us the very parts of ourselves that need acknowledgment and compassion.

We all know the famous line from Disney’s Snow White fairytale: 

“Mirror, Mirror, on the wall,

Who is the fairest of them all?”

The Evil Stepmother of Snow White is looking for validation in her magic glass. She is hungry to dispel a nagging fear that she is no longer aesthetically the most desirable.

When we step away from the well-known fairytale villain, we can see the mini, modern day magic mirrors popping up all over social media. No, we aren’t “Evil Stepmothers,” vying to be 
“the fairest of them all.” But our need to be seen in a certain light, what we perceive to be a flattering light, is there for most, if not all of us. And we don’t need an Instagram account to possess a magic mirror: we can look in physical or spiritual mirrors, comparing ourselves to others, wanting everything from our words to our appearance to be portrayed in a way that makes us likeable.

Of course, we want to be liked! We are social creatures; the desire to belong is a human need. Yet somehow, our universal need to be liked, like other universal human traits and experiences, is forgotten. We start to see ourselves separate from others. Our often divisively perceived modern world is a mirror, reflecting back to us the parts of us that need acknowledgment and compassion. We may be able to look at ourselves with compassion, but we forget there’s another side to that mirror: the world reflecting back to us, starving for that same compassion.

Pema Chodron is an American Buddhist nun and author who shares an ingenious exercise for fostering compassion and simultaneously, dispel divisiveness in her latest book, Welcoming the Unwelcome: Wholehearted Living in a Brokenhearted World. The exercise is called “Just Like Me.” 

The Just Like Me offers a quick and effective tool to remind ourselves of our connection to others. The exercise fosters compassion for both ourselves and others, offering us a mental mirror to see ourselves in others.

The “Just Like Me” exercise is particularly helpful when we are in a potentially frustrating situation. Let’s say you are in an airport and your plane is indefinitely delayed. You could start getting all worked up about it (which never gets us anywhere), or you could look around at the other people in the airport waiting with you, “seeing the humanity of all the people” in the waiting area. Holding up that mental mirror to the people you see, knowing they—just like you—were on their way somewhere.

When we hold up the mental mirror of “Just Like Me” we are reminded that our humanity connects us:

“Just like me, that person really wants to be loved.”

“Just like me, that person doesn’t want to suffer.”

“Just like me, that person doesn’t want physical pain.”

“Just like me, that person doesn’t want hatred coming towards them.”

There’s another benefit to the “Just Like Me” exercise: self-compassion. When we hold up a mirror to humanity, we can see our own fears and hopes. Our kindness for others can be reflected back to ourselves. And when we are more compassionate to ourselves, we are more easily able to feel compassion towards others—a beautiful cycle.

Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vN6hTFfqgd0

Burying Yourself in Dating

Dating while still in the psychological Diet Coke of Denial can be a precarious endeavor, making it that much harder to unearth the truth.

A dear friend of mine recently got divorced. We are talking, recent as in the ink is still drying as I write this. Eighteen years of marriage, two of living together, two kids, two dogs and a house still needing to be sold.

“It wasn’t mutual,” she tells me each time we get together. “I was happy. When he wanted to go for couple’s counseling, I said sure. He kept saying he wasn’t happy.”

Halfway through our lunches, she’ll pull out her phone and ask me what I think of the men she is meeting that afternoon, that night, the next day, and the day after that one.

Before our waiter heads over with the bill, she will repeat those three words from the start of our lunch, “It wasn’t mutual.” No reintroduction to the topic needed; the pain verbally splattered all over her face and hunched shoulders.

“Why do you think he wanted out?” I ask.

“Probably because my ass could double as a pincushion now,” she laughs.

Her laughter is a forced sound that renders both of us uncomfortable. I let the sound fall between us and land with a thud. We both know her ex found her physically desirable and couldn’t have cared less about her weight.

“You know I made that big financial mistake, but I apologized. Geesh, move on,” she said, flipping through the latest Hinge profiles on her phone.

My friend has alluded to the “big financial mistake” for years now, but I still don’t know what exactly she did wrong that her ex can’t move past. We are close and yet this financial “mistake” remains a mystery only clear to her ex.

Ironically, my friend is a private investment banker. Her career is literally about helping affluent customers make sound fiscal decisions. 

My friend is in the Diet Coke Denial of the most sacred relationship: the one with herself. Deep down, she knows exactly why her ex can’t move past whatever she did or didn’t do fiscally. Deep down, she knows it was wrong to cover up whatever it is that she did. Deep down, she knows her self-degrading humor regarding her derriere reflects her self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

Unfortunately, instead of getting real with herself, she buries the truth and the unspoken shame she feels. Instead of facing fears, she fabricates online filtered profiles of herself from 10 years ago, before her weight gain and financial deceit. She writes about the importance of honesty in a relationship and notes she is “looking for something casual.”

“I just want to have fun,” she tells me.

And then:

“It wasn’t mutual. I was happy.”

Until we get real with ourselves, how can we be ready to date? 

I think of the famous Sir Walter Scott quote:

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”

My friend, in an effort to protect her already broken heart, is deceiving herself and, by extension, the men she is meeting. It’s a tangled mess only to be cleared up through the inner work she needs to do. Denial is the Chinese finger trap of healing: the more we fight to deny the truth, the harder it is to break free and live the life we are meant to live.

A Dish for the Soul: Empathy

Dr. Pearcey, a Cognitive Psychologist at the Institute for Spirituality and Health, offers humanity a powerful tool for cultivating empathy.

The world feels more divisive than ever. Whether it’s how to handle COVID-19, the environment, the economy and everything in between, there’s a great deal of polarizing opinions. Yet there’s a fine but distinctive line between having an opinion and holding a grudge against someone for possessing an opposing, alternate viewpoint.

Our newly instated President Biden is palpably aware of the charged air. He asks us to put aside our differences, “uniting to fight the foes we face.” (Source: Vox).

We—a small but powerful pronoun. We are all together; humanity is interconnected in this mysterious life. We affect each other on levels great and small.

The charged air, the divisiveness and polarized opinions with metaphorical haunches raised (and sometimes literal, as we witnessed on January 6th at the Capitol), is fear-based reaction. Underneath the anger and violence is fear and pain. The lashing out is a manifestation of untended to psychological wounds.

Enter Dr. Jeremiah Pearcey, a Cognitive Psychologist at the Institute for Spirituality and Health (www.spiritualityandhealth.org) who offers “education and guidance…helping people reduce stress.” The other week, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Pearcey offered a mindfulness meditation to explore the historical moments leading up to the Civil Rights Movement, cultivating a greater understanding and compassion for others and ourselves. The title of the Zoom event: “A Day of Embrace and Peace.”

The idea of embracing the historical moments leading up to King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech,” of finding peace in the face of tension seems like an unlikely pairing. Yet the wise Dr. Pearcey’s guided meditation is just what the world needs now.

After several cleansing breaths and a reminder to get comfortable, attendees of the conference, myself included, were guided by Dr. Pearcey’s soothing voice to journey with him. We were asked to imagine ourselves in 1619 as Africans suddenly separated from our families, not understanding the language of our captors, chained together on a boat. Our journey continued to a plantation in 1800, where any courage to leave our “owners” was often extinguished by the site of other African Americans strung up on trees—a visual reminder of the dire risk for our freedom. We were even brought to the recent past, our last breaths labored, as George Floyd’s was, letting our capture know, with the little we had left of life, “I can’t breathe.”

Dr. Pearcey’s meditative guidance offered us a powerful tool for cultivating empathy and one that we can use in our daily lives. The prefix EM literally means in and PATHY means feeling. Under Dr. Pearcey’s steady and compassionate guidance, we were able to experience empathy for our ancestors and the victims of systemic racism today.

Did anxiety surface during the meditation? Anger? Hopelessness? Yes, to it all. Yet the mediation allowed a safe space to observe without judgement, to feel without attaching ourselves to the unpleasant emotions.

It is okay to feel uncomfortable in this life. When we practice self-compassion, we are more apt to feel compassion for others. Unity is a by-product of acknowledging our differences and cultivating empathy. When one of us suffers, we are all suffering; when we acknowledge our discomfort, our anxiety, our anger, or our hurt from a place of compassion, true healing can begin—for ourselves and, by extension, the world around us.

Thank You, Langston Hughes

The talented Langston Hughes reminds us of the choice we all have in his moving story, “Thank You, Ma’am”

Our world is fraught with anxiety, filled with the uncertainty of COVID-19 as our death toll continues to mount. The almost full calendar year of pandemic life has rendered many of us depressed. Factor in the economic stress and growing political tension, it is no surprise that many of us are also quick-tempered. After all, when we are experiencing pain it’s normal to react. 

How we react to pain makes all the difference.

As an English teacher to middle school students, I bear the gift and responsibility of educating minds through literature. Students “buy in” when they can connect a text to both the world around and in them. With the escalating violence at the US Capitol, I felt a need to choose a story that could palpably demonstrate an invaluable commodity: kindness.

 It’s easy to be kind when we are in a good place, when our needs are met and we want for little or nothing; kindness becomes, for many of us, a challenge when we are in pain.

The social activist and prolific Harlem Renaissance writer, Langston Hughes offered my students (and humanity) a short but profound and palpably moving example of kindness in the face of pain with his story, “Thank You, Ma’am.”

The story involves a young teen who attempts to steal a woman’s purse on the street at night. Instead of reporting the boy to the police, the woman brings him home and gives him a warm meal. Her kindness alters the boy’s behavior, his perception and—although we can only infer—the trajectory of his life.

I want my students to know that each of them has the power to make a choice every moment; I want each of us to remember that, despite how painful life can get at times, we always have a choice to be kind. This is not a call to be a doormat. Langston Hughes’ character, Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is portrayed as a strong, no nonsense woman. She is that rare mixture of confident and compassionate, perceptive yet matter of fact.

So, as you go through your morning, your day, your week, your life, regardless of wherever life may take you, channel your inner Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones. A simple gesture of kindness can change someone’s life in ways you may never know—including your own.

The Happiness Test

How we treat others is a strong indicator of how we feel about ourselves

A student stormed into class this week, his own personal hurricane. 

“You okay?” I asked.

He shook his head, his eyes filled with a mixture of hurt and anger. “These kids said I looked like a 3rdgrader. They were making fun of my height.”

Despite our masks, I could hear a snort-like laugh emerge from a girl in our classroom. 

Ah, middle school: the realm where cruelty is often the dish du jour. And at that moment, the girl’s laugh caused the boy’s eyes to tear up.

“You want to know a secret?” I asked. The room fell silent. “When someone is mean, it’s about them. They aren’t happy with themselves.”

The girl who had, just seconds before, snorted a laugh said, “I like making fun of people.”

“Maybe it makes you feel good for a little while, but it doesn’t make you feel so good in the long run. Besides, if you were happy, really happy with yourself, you wouldn’t feel a need to make someone else feel bad.”

The girl nodded slowly. While the mask made it hard to “read” her face, my gut says she “got” the lesson.

Despite most of our readers experiencing life post 6th grade, the Middle School Mentality persists: the colleague who passive-aggressively puts you down at a meeting, the ex who continues to threaten court, the driver who tailgates.

The pandemic has caused an incomprehensible domino effect of loss and change around the world; it is not, however, an excuse to be cruel to others, ever.

If you are choosing to read my work, chances are you can relate more to the boy in my classroom than the snort-laughing girl. You are kind, compassionate and proactively trying to live your best life. 

We are spiritual Russian dolls in this life, living with the layers of who we were at each stage and carrying those perceptions with us along the way. We are the 6th grade boy, horrified and angry by other kids’ cruel words; we may also be the girl who laughs at the pain of others because deep down, we aren’t happy with ourselves.

So, the next time someone snaps at you or cuts you off in traffic, consider the “Happiness Test.” When someone is acting out in an aggressive or cruel way, it’s a reflection of THEM, not YOU. The aggressor or bully isn’t happy with themselves. 

The good news? You don’t have to join them. 

The Unspoken Struggle

There is a silent but desperate pain in many teens and tweens in our 21st century world

As a writing teacher, I have the bittersweet gift and responsibility that comes with reading the many hidden thoughts of tweens and teens. An English teacher is often informally consigned to the role of therapist, a safe repository of one’s typically dormant insights. While a significant number of students’ essays contain innocuous content, there are sometimes those red flags that require I share my concern with the school psychologist. Unfortunately, I’m seeing an uptick in red flags.

Since the pandemic, we know there’s been a rise in mental health concern. According to MedScape (www.medscape.com), depression symptoms have “jumped threefold, overdose deaths…increased in 40 states, and 25% of young adults have suicidal ideation.”

It is no surprise then that our adolescents are demonstrating an increase in anxiety and depression as well. This past week, I’d assigned my students the following prompt:

“Write about a time when you have felt or experienced a struggle in your life. Did it resolve? If so, how? If not, why?”

Regardless of ability (i.e. ELL learners, GT students and everything in between), my students were eager to write about their struggles. They were also hungry to be heard. Shortly after posting the assignment, a barrage of emails appeared with the following inquiries:

“This really helps. Can we do more of these prompts?”

“I normally hate writing, but I like this assignment. Can I do more than one?”

“I have a pretty big struggle. Would it be okay if I shared it with our class?”

There’s a sense of safety in writing, in getting our thoughts out onto the page. Writing also creates an immediate sense of being heard—even if it’s just for an audience of one—YOU!

Several of my “red flag” essays end with a request to not share their anxious thoughts and/or depression with anyone. They write of observed or experienced domestic abuse, estranged parents, gender uncertainty, cancer, the loss of a loved one, and bullying. The overarching emotion that binds them is a sense that they are alone and unworthy.

I want to hug each of these students. Instead, I tell them the truth: they are courageous for sharing their stories and they matter.